Snake’s head fritillaries and crown imperial fritillaries are strange-sounding names for very unusual plants. For a photographer, the flowers make an enticing subject and I was lucky enough to be able to take some pictures of them in my friend Judy’s beautiful garden. (Thanks, Judy – I had a lovely time!)
The snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) gets its name from the shape of the unopened flower bud – long and pointy at the tip – a bit like a viper’s head. It has other folk-names, according to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ (a fascinating book, worth dipping into if you happen to get the chance). These include crowcups, leper’s bells, sulky ladies, and frawcups (possibly derived from a place-name).
These fritillaries were recorded to be growing in gardens in the UK in 1578 but not recorded in the wild until 1736. Some say that this suggests they may not be native to the UK but, even so, they used to be seen in their thousands growing in damp meadows. Sadly, as agriculture developed over time and land was drained and ‘improved’, they lost these habitats. There are still a few places where they can be found growing wild and, thankfully, they’re popular with gardeners, so they are still able to create a magical sight every spring.
The tiny chequered markings on the snake’s head flowers are irresistible. They make me want to get as close as I can to photograph the flower, in an attempt to show how much they look as if they’ve been carefully painted on by hand. The graceful shape of the flower, with those almost umbrella-like ribs at the top adds to the attraction. (Doesn’t it look just as if the petals are fabric, stretching over the ribs that are holding it in shape? Umbrellas for the ‘wee folk’!) The way the bell of the flower hangs from its curving stem, with one or two long and slender leaves soaring up from it, completes a very elegant flower.
The crown imperial fritillary is very different from its serpent-like sister. A dramatically long stem holds the bold cluster of flowers up high. Instead of the one or two leaves rising above the flowers, there is a generous top-knot of leaves, giving a very distinctive appearance. This ‘crown’ of arching leaves is said to have given the plant its name, due to its resemblance to the shape of an imperial crown. However, a competing claim suggests that the name derives from the plant having been grown in the Imperial Botanic Garden in Vienna after the plant was brought there from Persia in 1576.
Like the snake’s head fritillary, I wanted to be able to get close enough to the flower of the orange crown imperial to show the markings on its petals. (The veins on the petals of the yellow version are barely visible by comparison.) These darker veins create a strong pattern of lines that make the flower even more pleasing to photograph. These flowers are such star performers when you come to take their photograph, that I think I will need to try growing some fritillaries in my own garden.